In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal, we will be exploring all aspects of the terminal, from its most famous attributes to its hidden treasures. Previously, we showed you the Grand Central Terminal That Never Was and the original plans for Terminal City and its Hotels. This article is the first installment of a 3 part series revealing the secrets of Grand Central.
1. The Ceiling
The Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal is massive and cathedral-like in its cavernous grandiosity. It is 275 feet long, 120 feet wide and 125 feet tall, and somewhere inside of it there is a design flaw of epic proportion; a single error that spans its entire volume – the whole room. Conceived of by architect Whitney Warren and designed by French painter Paul Helleu, the October zodiac that illuminates the ceiling is backwards. Though it was based on an astronomically accurate depiction by a Columbia professor, Australian painter Charles Basing is largely blamed for this, the largest mistake in Grand Central Terminal.
Though it is speculated that the error was in Basing’s placement of the template he was to replicate (he held it out in front of him or at his feet instead of above his head), no one really knows how the constellations came to be backwards. Embarrassed, Cornelius Vanderbilt claimed that it was no accident: the zodiac was intended to be viewed from the divine rather than human perspective in his temple to transportation.
2. The brick
Follow the ecliptic (dashed gold band) West across the astronomic ceiling of the Main Concourse until you reach Cancer, the crab. There, above Michael Jordan’s Steak House, you will notice a small, dark rectangle where the cerulean blue to algae green sky meets the winter white marble arches. That is what the ceiling looked like before the MTA undertook a massive restoration project in 1998 to clean it, along with the rest of the terminal. But what made it so dirty in the first place?
Specialists and straphangers alike were both stunned by the spectroscopic analysis: it was not ash, soot or coal from the diesel-powered locomotive engines of old, but 70% nicotine and tar. Decades of cigarette smoke defaced the starry ceiling, making this brick perhaps the best and certainly the most secret anti-smoking ad in the city.
3. The Restoration of the ceiling
The restoration of Grand Central Terminal demanded innovative restoration techniques and technology due to the complexity of materials and design and the necessity to bring it up to date as a functioning transportation hub even as it remained open to serve commuters. The restoration of the ceiling, however, was simple. Simple Green, that is – the biodegradable detergent used to gently scrub away the decades of obfuscating grime. That’s all it took – a few men, a few months, and the ceiling was good as new. Or not quite…
The ceiling that you see today is actually the second incarnation of the sky mural. In the 1940s, the original tempera on plaster painted in 1913 was replaced; a whole new tableau made of 4 by 8 foot panels consisting of a similar, but less ornate constellation recreated in oil paints was bolted and glued over the first. The decision to restore this and not the original version was controversial, inciting a heated debate about the proper philosophy of preservation and restoration. The MTA’s reasoning, however, was pragmatic and actually quite pressing: the panels contained asbestos. Even though the contamination was nonfriable, meaning it had not been reduced to potentially hazardous dust-like particles, it would have been too dangerous to remove the panels to restore the original.